‘Economic Migrant’: Buzz-word or fact?

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Venezuela is currently going through a humanitarian crisis, causing millions of people to leave the country. But these individuals have been labelled ‘economic migrants’ instead of refugees or asylum seekers – is there a difference? If so, what does that mean? Ben Robinson investigates.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines the term ‘economic migrant’ as “a person who leaves their home country to live in another country with better working or living conditions.” This phrase has been banded around the political and media landscapes of Australia for several years due to the rise of asylum seekers wanting to make Australia their home, but the recent humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has put the term in the news globally. The distinction between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘economic migrant’ can make or break a person’s choice to leave their home country. With so much riding on such simple terms, let’s unpack them.

First, a bit of history on the Venezuela crisis. The origins of the social unrest in Venezuela are both political and economic. Politically, the government has been the subject of many protests in the past year due to the Venezuelan Supreme Court unlawfully stripping powers away from the elected members of the Congress, in what many call an attempt by President Nicolás Maduro to move the country towards a dictatorship. Economically, the country – which has the world’s largest oil reserves – has relied heavily on oil for the strength of their economy, and used the billions of Bolívar generated to fund social programs and food subsidies. However, over the past couple of years, global prices for oil have fallen dramatically causing that revenue to wane. Similarly, previous President Hugo Chavez installed price control measures on key items to ensure household staples were affordable to all Venezuelans. Whilst a good idea in theory, in practice, these low prices minimise profits for businesses, so producers have stopped producing key items like cornflour. This means that there is now a lack of staple goods being supplied to Venezuelans, and the goods that are available are more expensive. Unfortunately, these are only two of many issues that is causing social unrest and malnourishment in Venezuela.

These issues have caused the biggest displacement of people in Latin American history according to the United Nations, with more than 1.1 million people fleeing the country since the crisis began. But what can be expected when 61% of Venezuelans say they go to bed hungry, and 90% say they don’t have the means to buy the little amount of food that is available? However, the Venezuelan people are being met with hostility both socially and politically. Those who migrated to Colombia and Peru are being faced with violence, and Panama’s anti-Venezuelan sentiment has been growing over the past year, largely due to struggling financially when Venezuela’s economy boomed. For decades, oil-rich Venezuelans have been stereotyped as snobby and wealthy by those in neighbouring countries who aren’t as financially strong. Outside of Latin America – mainly in European countries – the displaced people of Venezuela are not being taken seriously. This is largely due to their current title of ‘economic migrants’.

A whole bunch of people who seek to come to this country are economic migrants, who are seeking to comport themselves as refugees.

Whilst not a technical legal term, this phrase has been around for years. Back in 2013, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was determined to “face some facts… A whole bunch of people who seek to come to this country are economic migrants, who are seeking to comport themselves as refugees.”

It’s a buzz word.

An immigration lawyer – who wished to remain anonymous – said there was no such thing. “The government is using that term to criticise asylum seekers”, they said, adding that whilst it means “anyone coming here for a reason other than protection… all [asylum seekers] come here for a better way of life. It’s a buzz word.”

In terms of legislation, the Refugees Convention – of which Australia is a signatory – defines a refugee as someone who:

“…owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Lawyer jargon aside, this essentially defines a refugee as someone who is running of fear of persecution by their habitual nationality. Even though this definition makes no mention of economic stability, the Migration Act – which builds on this definition – adds that a person is a qualifiable as a refugee if their feared persecution includes “serious harm”, one instance of which can be “significant economic hardship that threatens the person’s capacity to subsist”. This very amendment proves that ‘economic migrant’ is nothing but political rhetoric and jargon, because those running from economic hardship are considered refugees under the law.

So why isn’t Australia lending a hand to these Venezuelan refugees? Just because they are refugees under our laws, does that mean we bare a responsibility for them? It seems like something for the United Nations to decide, but there seems to be little progress on the matter. In fact, earlier this year Alfred de Zayas – an independent expert of the UN – declared that “there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.” But when all the facts look the way and over a million nationals are fleeing starvation and poverty, and for those displaced Venezuelans seeking a better way of life void of corruption and poverty, something needs to happen soon.

Ben Robinson is a first-year student of economics who wants to explain things to people for a living, by making boring stuff sound interesting. He is currently obsessed with obscure psychedelic music from the 1960’s and he enjoys long walks on the beach, sunsets, and long walks on the beach at sunset.